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Editorial

Contempt then and now

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Dr. Asanga Welikala, legal academic and constitutional lawyer, has gone on record saying that while imprisonment over contempt of court is legal, it is increasingly seen as inappropriate and disproportionate. This observation has been made in the context of the jailing last week of Parliamentarian and film star Ranjan Ramanayake to four years rigorous imprisonment on contempt charges. Thanks to television, the country was able to see the actor, screaming and shouting that he had neither robbed, killed nor engaged in drug trafficking and will not apologize, being dragged into a prison vehicle to be taken away to serve his term. He was clearly playing to the cameras as he would have on a film set and put up quite a show.

Readers would remember the highly respected Prof. Carlo Fonseka, Ramanayake’s uncle, accompanying him to court every day at the early stages of the trial which began three years ago. This was before the late professor, frail even then, was physically unable to go to court. This case, as most of them do, dragged on for a long time as is common, or even inevitable, in this country. Most people know that contempt of court is a serious offence and refrain from trifling with the judicial system for fear of punishment. While the courts are not infallible, as demonstrated by higher courts sometimes overturning judgments from lower down, there is no bar on the criticism of judicial decisions. But this must be done, as the text books say, in “chaste language” without scandalizing the court.

It was decades ago that Mr. Herbert Hulugalle, then editor of the “Ceylon Daily News,” was convicted of a contempt offence by a three judge bench of the Supreme Court headed by Sir. Sydney Abrahams, then Chief Justice, who later became a Privy Councillor. On the bench with the British CJ were two Ceylonese judges, Justice Akbar and Justice Koch. A fine of thousand rupees – not chicken feed at that time – and imprisonment till the rising of court was imposed on the editor over an editorial titled “Justice on Holiday” which Hulugalle did not write. But as editor, he had to take responsibility for what appeared in his paper. The editorial was written at the instance of D.R. Wijewardene, the legendary Lake House founder. Hulugalle, himself an advocate, sat with the lawyers in the courtroom after his conviction and spent the lunch adjournment with his friend, the Registrar of the court, in the latter’s chambers. Sir Sydney, ostensibly for Hulugalle’s benefit, adjourned court for the day earlier than usual. Wijewardene, no doubt at great expense, took the case right up to the Privy Council in a vain attempt to overturn the judgment.

More recently, Editor Fred Silva, also of the “Daily News” was imprisoned for six months for a newspaper column titled “Dress Sense” that appeared in his paper. This was a comment on different requirements of different courts on how persons appearing before them should be clad – a jacket and tie or national dress as the case may be. It was said there that while one court upbraided someone wearing trousers and an open neck shirt for not appearing in what we Lankans are fond of calling a “full suit,” a witness in another court was giving evidence neatly clad in a white shirt and pair of trousers. Although Silva was convicted and served his sentence, a reporter (subsequently editor) present in the courtroom said he clearly heard Justice Jaya Pathirana telling his brother judges “let him go” over the court public address system.

It was only a few months ago that Ven. Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara, the leader of the Bodu Bala Sena, was convicted of what appeared to be a blatant act of contempt by making a fiery speech in a courtroom at Homagama where a case in which he was interested was being heard. The complainant in this matter was the judge himself. The monk was convicted on several counts preferred against him and sentenced to six years in jail. But he was pardoned by President Sirisena after serving a fraction of his sentence and subsequently ran for Parliament. Although there was a report that Ramanayake, speaking on the telephone to UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe after his conviction had said that he would seek a pardon, this was said to be “in lighter vein”. Given the hellholes that our prisons are, whether ‘One Shot’ as the MP was styled in one of his movies, will ask for a pardon remains to be seen. He will continue to be an MP for six months after which his seat will be vacated. Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa, under whose Samagi Jana Balavegaya ticket Ramanayake returned to parliament for his second term, said last week that “we will stand by him;” but what that means in practical terms is not clear. Whether the actor is made of similar stuff as General (now Field Marshal) Sarath Fonseka, who steadfastly refused to seek a pardon but soldiered through a part of his prison term until he was granted an unasked pardon, is debatable. Ramanayake stands to be disqualified from standing for election for seven years if he serves four years in jail. That can end his political career.

All things are impermanent as the Buddha said. How this particular drama will pan out remains to be seen.

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Editorial

Govt. in a spot

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Saturday 27th February, 2021

The rejection by the SLFP of the final report of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI), which probed the Easter Sunday carnage, has come as no surprise. It could not have done otherwise; its leader and former President Maithripala Sirisena is among those the PCoI has held responsible for the serious lapses that made the terror attacks possible. However, if the SLFP thinks it can defend its leader simply by rejecting the commission report, it is mistaken. Attorney General Dappula de Livera will decide whether to institute legal action against those named in the report; he will do so after perusing the report and other documents related thereto.

Sirisena, while he was the President, used to brag that he had a sword (read executive powers), which we jokingly likened to King Arthur’s Excalibur. He said he would not hesitate to use his ‘sword’ for the benefit of the people. In reality, he behaved like a child wielding a Samurai sword. He did not know how to exercise the executive powers which a leader must not monkey around with. The Easter Sunday attacks would not have happened if there had been a sensible President. Terrorist attacks are difficult to prevent, but in the case of the Easter Sunday carnage there had been several warnings.

Others in the yahapalana government were also responsible for the serious lapses that led to the terror strikes. The then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe became the de facto head of state thanks to the 19th Amendment, which stripped the President of some vital executive powers and vested them in the Prime Minister. Wickremesinghe had the police, especially the CID, under his thumb. The entire Cabinet of ministers at the time was also responsible for the massive security failure that enabled the NTJ terrorists to strike at will.

The UNP is paying for its sins in the political wilderness. Some prominent UNPers who were in the yahapalana government, which failed to prevent the terror strikes, are now in the SJB. They seem to think the people have forgotten their past. They cannot absolve themselves of the blame for the UNP-led administration’s serious lapses on the national security front, but they have shrewdly put the incumbent government on the defensive over the PCoI report. These worthies have adopted a ruse pickpockets employ to make good their escape. When a pickpocket has to outrun his pursuers, he bolts, shouting ‘pickpocket, pickpocket’ so as to dupe others into believing that he is also one of the good guys. The SJB, which is the UNP in all but name, is now demanding to know the truth about the Easter Sunday carnage, which they did not care to prevent!

The SLPP, which, during its Opposition days, rejected a Parliamentary Select Committee report on the Easter Sunday attacks, undertook to launch a thorough probe to get at the truth and bring the culprits to justice, and flogged the issue of security failure hard enough to capture power, stands accused of having reneged on its promise. The SJB/UNP is now on the offensive, picking holes in the PCoI report. We are witnessing a role reversal, aren’t we?

What on earth possessed the government to delay the submission of copies of the commission report to Parliament and the Attorney General? A copy of the report should also have been sent to His Eminence Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith, who was instrumental in bringing the post-carnage situation under control. But for his intervention, the country would have been plunged into another bloodbath. The government resorted to delaying tactics, giving the impression to the public that it was trying to suppress the PCoI findings and recommendations in a bid to defend Sirisena, who is now on its side.

Sirisena became a problem for the Rajapaksas, in 2014, by decamping and securing the presidency with the help of the UNP. They kissed and made up subsequently. It won the last presidential election in spite of Sirisena, whose sympathies were with SJB Presidential candidate, Sajith Premadasa. It, in its wisdom, offered a piggyback ride to Sirisena at the general election; it has thus made him its problem again.

It is being argued in some quarters that the only way the government can prevent the Opposition from cashing in on the PCoI report is to throw Sirisena to the wolves, but the SLFP has 14 members in the SLPP parliamentary group. There’s the rub. The government finds itself in a spot.

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Editorial

Probes: More queries than answers

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Friday 26th February, 2021

The Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI) that probed the Easter Sunday carnage can easily be bracketed with the PCoI on the Treasury bond scams; both have not dug deep enough to reveal the masterminds of the crimes they were tasked with investigating. Obviously, Hashim Zahran, described as the National Thowheed Jamaath (NTJ) leader was only one of the attackers. The NTJ stockpiled explosives, arms and ammunition sufficient for many attacks. It had a long-term strategy; it brainwashed children and conducted training and indoctrination programmes. It need not have done so if its goal had been to carry out eight attacks in a single day. Why should an outfit train scores of cadres when the need is only for eight persons to blow themselves up? If Zahran had had ISIS links, as claimed in some quarters, he could have easily smuggled in eight foreign Jihadists to carry out the Easter Sunday attacks. Why should an organisation procure huge amounts of explosives if the need is only for eight explosive-laden backpacks? The NTJ could have smuggled in suicide jackets or bought them from the former Tigers.

There is reason to believe that Zahran had a handler, who must be identified and dealt with. It is also possible that Zahran’s handler also had a handler, perhaps from a foreign spy agency bent on destabilising this country. Zahran’s base was in the Eastern Province, and he had been making preparations for a string of terror attacks spread over a long period of time, especially in that part of the country. He tried his hands at launching attacks against the state; he and his associates dipped their toes successfully by executing two policemen, at Vavunativu in 2018; they got away with the crime, which the CID wrongly blamed on the LTTE rump. Those who were in charge of national security at that time were intellectually challenged, and there was no need for Zahran to resort to suicide attacks on 21 April 2019; he could have attacked the targets without losing any of his cadres. What prompted him to carry out terror attacks away from the East, his stronghold? If he had been the leader of the terrorist movement, he would have known that his death would mark the end of it; he had planned a second wave of attacks, the PCoI was told. Why on earth did he choose to perish in the first wave itself? These questions have gone unanswered.

That the ISIS had the Easter Sunday attacks carried out is a tall story. They would have claimed responsibility for the explosions even before the dust settled on the blast sites if they had been behind them; they took time to do so. The real mastermind/s of the Easter Sunday attacks must be identified if security threats to Sri Lanka are to be obviated. So long as they are at large, threats will persist.

Among those who told the PCoI, in no uncertain terms, that there had been a hidden hand behind the TNJ are former President Maithripala Sirisena, SLMC leader and SJB MP Rauff Hakeem and former CID SDIG Ravi Seneviratne. His Eminence Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith also said there had been a foreign conspiracy behind the terror attacks to destabilise the country. He must be privy to some information that others are not. So, no investigation that has ignored this vital aspect of the terror attacks can be considered complete.

In a previous editorial comment (28/01), we said we hoped the PCoI report would clear doubts as regards the following: why did the NTJ use two bombers for the suicide attacks at Shangri-La, Colombo? One of them was Zahran himself. He could have got the other bomber to take another target. Why didn’t he do so? Did his handler seek to send any message to the world through the Shangri-La attack? If so, what was it? Was Zahran duped into communicating with and taking orders from a fake ISIS created by a powerful spy agency? Is there any truth in the media reports that the police were denied access to a luxury hotel room, where explosive detection canines led them to, following the Easter Sunday bombings? The PCoI probe has not yielded answers to these questions.

There is a need for another commission to peruse the information the Easter Sunday PCoI gathered and conduct a fresh probe into the terror attacks from other angles which have not received due attention.

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Editorial

Gesture of solidarity

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Thursday 25th February, 2021

Nothing could be more reassuring and uplifting in times of trouble than a true friend’s presence. Sri Lanka has only a few generous, altruistic friends, and Pakistan certainly is prominent among them. Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s visit, albeit brief, could not have come at a better time for Sri Lanka, a badger facing a pack of growling mastiffs in Geneva; what it needs most at this juncture is moral support.

Many are the nations that have proffered loads and loads of unsolicited advice to Sri Lanka on how to protect democracy and human rights. But none of them helped remove the scourge of terror, the gravest threat to democracy and humankind. Pakistan stood unwaveringly behind Sri Lanka during the latter’s war on terror and helped the latter in numerous ways. It was the multi-barrel rocket launchers Pakistan rushed here in the aftermath of the fall of Elephant Pass garrison, in 2000, that enabled the Army put the brakes on the ‘unceasing wave’ of the LTTE. Otherwise, the Tigers would have laid siege to Jaffna with ease, forcing the Army to withdraw its troops. (Some countries even offered ships for ferrying soldiers to Colombo!) Today, Sri Lanka is free from political assassinations, massacres, child conscription, etc., as LTTE terrorism has been neutralised. If it had given in to pressure from the Western bloc and spared the LTTE’s military muscle, thousands of lives would have been destroyed during the last 12 years or so.

There were calls, in some quarters, for PM Khan to take up the issue of ‘forced burials’ with Colombo. They were obviously aimed at creating a media feeding frenzy and thereby giving the anti-Sri Lankan campaign in Geneva a boost. Pakistan and Sri Lanka have their own way of sorting out problems; never do they resort to megaphone diplomacy. But, the fact remains that mandatory burials have hurt the Muslim community beyond measure mostly because those who die of COVID-19 are allowed to be buried in other countries including those notorious for their antipathy towards Muslims. Some prominent Sri Lankan medical experts are of the view that the burial of pandemic victims should be permitted, provided the health regulations in place to prevent the spread of the pandemic are strictly followed. Prime Minster Mahinda Rajapaksa, as a sensible leader, must have gone by expert opinion including that of the Sri Lanka Medical Association, when he said in Parliament recently that the burial of COVID-19 victims would become an option. Sadly, he was overruled.

It is significant that the Head of State of a prominent Islamic nation has been to Sri Lanka while the pro-LTTE groups are exerting a considerable pull on a section of the Muslims community who courageously stood up to LTTE terror and thwarted Prabhakaran’s efforts to extend his control over the Eastern Province. Some of the Muslims who became the target of a hate campaign following the Easter Sunday carnage have joined forces with the pro-LTTE political groups masquerading as crusaders for democracy, in the Eastern Province, which is of pivotal importance to the countries that seek to counter increasing Chinese presence here. This is something Sri Lanka and its Islamic allies such as Pakistan should take cognizance of.

Meanwhile, there are many areas where Sri Lanka and Pakistan can partner to realise their full potentials as developing nations. Besides trade, commerce and investment, they can concentrate more on agriculture, construction, science and technology, education, medicine, tourism, etc. PM Khan’s ‘Global Initiative on Debt Relief’ is something that Sri Lanka, as well as other nations in the Global South, should fully support.

There are some issues that Sri Lanka and Pakistan should address jointly. One of them is the narcotic trade, which has affected both countries badly. Drug cartels have established a supply route via Pakistan and Sri Lanka, which has become a narcotic transit point of sorts.

It is a pity that the Sri Lankan Parliament did not have the honour of being addressed by PM Khan, a brilliant orator and trusted friend.

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